It all started in 1933 with a paper by Howard Warren, a Princeton psychologist and president of the American Psychological Association, who spent a week at a German nudist camp a year earlier.
According to Ian Nicholson, Professor of Psychology at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Warren’s article, “Social Nudism and the Body Taboo,” “was a qualitative and largely sympathetic consideration of the social and psychological significance of nudism.”
Warren “described nudism in therapeutic terms, highlighting the ‘easy camaraderie’ and lack of ‘self-consciousness’ in the nudist park, in addition to a ‘notable improvement in general health,'” along with the principal perspective to return to nature.
Soon after, other articles were published in psychology journals that highlighted the benefits of nudism in contributing to healthy, well-adjusted kids and adults.
But it was psychologist Paul Bindrim who actually pioneered nude psychotherapy in 1967. Bindrim was no quack; to the contrary, he was a qualified professional whose idea was inspired by the well-respected and regarded Abraham Maslow. Nicholson writes:
Bindrim himself was a licensed psychologist with academic qualifications from Columbia and Duke University and he was careful to package his therapeutic innovations in the language of scientific advancement. Moreover, his therapeutic discoveries drew heavily on the work of the then-president of the American Psychological Association: Abraham Maslow. World-renowned as one of the fathers of humanistic psychology, Maslow had a long-standing interest in nudity dating back to his graduate work as a primatologist in the 1930s. Although he had never written extensively on the topic, Maslow’s work was the inspiration for nude psychotherapy and as APA president he publicly endorsed the technique as an innovative avenue for growth.
As a student, Bindrim became interested in parapsychology. He studied extrasensory perception (ESP) with J.B. Rhine at Duke University. (Rhine coined the term ESP.) When Bindrim moved to California, he started his private practice in Hollywood and also was ordained a minister in the Church of Religious Science.
Again, Maslow was a big influence for Bindrim. Maslow became disillusioned with psychoanalysis, behaviorism and the focus on psychopathology. He called for a focus on personal growth, authenticity and transcendence. And he viewed nudism as a viable path to those things.
In his early work, Bindrim created “peak oriented psychotherapy,” which involved four stages and was conducted in groups: recalling the peak experience, identifying the activities and things that contributed to peak experiences; immersing yourself in them; and extending these experiences into dreams. This was based in part on Maslow’s ideas about peak experiences. According to Nicholson:
Likening the experience to a “visit to a personally defined heaven,” Maslow (1968) described peak experiences as moments of maximum psychological functioning. “He feels more intelligent, more perceptive, wittier, stronger, or more graceful than at other times” (Maslow, 1968, p. 105). Not only was a person generally enhanced during a peak experience, but he also felt a heightened sense of oneness with himself and the world around him. “The person in the peak-experiences feels more integrated (unified, whole, all-of-a-piece) . . . and is more able to fuse with the world” (Maslow, 1968, p. 104).
The encounter group movement was another inspiration. Here, groups of people got together for the purposes of openness, self-discovery and honesty. (No doubt you’ve participated in something similar like the “trust fall,” one of the techniques used where people fall back and their partner catches them.)
The techniques were meant to produce strong emotions and thereby breakthroughs. Another technique was time. Some groups met continuously for 18 to 36 hours. According to Nicholson: “The lengthier format and sleep deprivation was thought to allow participants to build up a psychological momentum.”
The first session of nude psychotherapy took place on June 16, 1967 at a California nudist resort with 24 participants. Other sessions were held at swanky hotels that offered natural surroundings and great amenities. There were typically 15 to 25 participants. The cost was $100 per participant for a weekend or $45 for a day. According to Nicholson:
Like other encounter groups, nude marathon participants traversed culturally anomalous emotional terrain. Most of the participants were strangers to each other, yet they were expected to share an unparalleled level of emotional and physical openness with the group. Aware of the anomaly, Bindrim moved quickly to create an ersatz community. “Basically, I conceive of the first half of the marathon as a means of producing a good functioning group in the nude” (Bindrim, 1972, p. 145).
Bindrim began this process by employing familiar encounter group techniques. Participants were invited to “eyeball” each other (stare into each other’s eyes at close range) and then to respond in some physical way (hugging, wrestling, etc.). After this ice-breaker, participants disrobed in the dark to musical accompaniment before joining a small circle to perform a “meditation-like” hum. This process, Bindrim felt, gave rise to the “feeling of being all part of one human mass” (1972, p. 145).
Like a psychological impresario, Bindrim carefully walked his “human mass” through a series of emotional displays. Freely blending psychoanalysis and Maslovian theory, Bindrim told his participants that they needed to reenact the hurt and frustration in their life in order achieved a psychologically hallowed state. “The idea is to regress, if possible, to the trauma that caused the distortion. That’s the way to start toward a peak experience” (cited in Howard, 1970, p. 95). Under pressure to disclose, participants offered up their intimate secrets and Bindrim masterfully sought out those human dramas that could deliver the greatest emotional payoff. During the first marathon, a participant “Bob” complained that his wife didn’t give him any love:
Paul grabbed a rolled package of magazines, pulled over a bench, shoved the package into Bob’s hands, and screamed to him, “Hit her, hit her, get it out. She wouldn’t give you any love.” Bob in a frenzy, started to hit the bench harder and harder, screaming and swearing vindictively. Paul cried with him. The group cried with him. We were all swept into it. . . . When it was over, we were all limp. (Goodson, 1991, p. 24)